How reading helps young children understand big emotions

Fern Chapman Schumer, author of the Happy Harper Thursdays series

Cutoffs and estrangements – by circumstance or by choice – have plagued generations in my family. 

In 1938, when my mother was only 12, the rising tide of anti-Jewish hatred in the town where our family had lived for 200 years led my grandparents to send her to America, all by herself. My mother was an “unaccompanied minor” before the label existed. Years later, she learned what she had escaped — the Nazis had murdered her parents in concentration camps.

My mother processed her losses just as most children would: she personalized everything. Too young to comprehend the political situation in Nazi Germany, she couldn’t understand that, by forcing her to leave her family, homeland, language, friends – her entire identity — her parents had saved her life.

Instead, my mother felt abandoned. She figured her parents had sent her away because they didn’t love her anymore.

Even now, at the age of 96, my mother suffers the lingering pain of having carried that painful misperception for most of her life.

History repeats itself?

When the pandemic emerged in March of 2020, I could no longer routinely visit my young granddaughter. Like many grandparents, I was sad and deeply distraught. What worried me most was that my granddaughter was too young to understand why her beloved grandmother had disappeared.

I feared family history would repeat itself, and my granddaughter, like my mother, might think she was responsible for events that had nothing to do with her. She might believe that I stopped visiting her because I didn’t love her anymore.

To reduce her anxiety and mine, I wrote two children’s picture books – Happy Harper Thursdays: A Grandmother’s Love for Her Granddaughter During the Coronavirus and The Return of Happy Harper Thursdays: The Guiding Light of a Grandmother’s Love. These two brightly illustrated picture books help little people understand their big emotions. They attempt to explain to young children, simply and clearly, why we haven’t always been able to be with our loved ones during the pandemic.

Reading as therapy

During the pandemic years, children have had to adjust to frequent changes at home, at school or daycare, and among friends and family. Like the adults in their lives, they’ve experienced a tangle of negative emotions. Sad, lonely, fearful, anxious, disappointed: children, unlike adults, just aren’t equipped to understand this chaotic mix of circumstances and feelings.

Books can be an ideal tool to help young children identify and express their feelings. When readers identify with a character, especially on an emotional level, they see that others also are experiencing and coping with personal struggles – just as they are. Picture books are especially engaging and helpful for young readers, with images and words working together to clarify powerful emotions.

For children, reading works much like role-playing, allowing them can see the world through someone else’s eyes. Through reading, young people gain new perspectives. They see examples of how to negotiate friendships, handle conflicts during play, and generally manage their feelings. In addition, books build empathy in children. While the capacity to empathize is hardwired into the human brain, the skills of acting on empathy need to be taught, nurtured, and practiced over time.

Strategies for reading with children

Looking at images and reading words on the printed page aren’t sufficient to help children process emotions and develop empathy. When reading with children, keep in mind these strategies:

Pick the right book – To help children learn to identify and manage their feelings, choose texts that explore typical life scenarios. Familiarity helps them understand more concretely what they or their peers might be experiencing.

Identify a character’s feelings – Teach children the vocabulary for their emotions. When reading a story, ask about a character’s emotions in simple terms. For example: “Why do you think the wolf blew down the pigs’ houses? How do you think the pigs felt when the wolf blew down their houses? What do you think the pigs should do? What did we learn from the story about building a house?”

Take time to ponder – To help young readers put themselves into the character’s shoes, it’s important to pause periodically and reflect upon what has happened in the story. Researchers recommend some thought-provoking questions to help a child relate to the character’s emotions:

  • How do you think the character feels right now?
  • Why do you think he/she did what he/she just did?
  • What would you do if you were the main character right now?
  • Based on what we know about the character, do you think he/she will do what you would do? What might he or she do instead?
  • What would make the character happy right now?
  • What do you think will happen next?

Reading cultivates empathy, intimacy, even community-mindedness

As adults help children answer these questions, each child brings his or her own feelings to the text. Children gain confidence in their own ability to control their environment when they’re able to predict an outcome of a story. Adults reading with children help them learn to discuss complex feelings – while, importantly, fostering greater intimacy and a stronger connection.

In general, readers with greater empathy and more awareness of their own emotions are likely to become more compassionate, more community-minded people. Eventually, when readers become parents themselves, they’ll use these reading techniques to raise empathetic, self-aware children of their own.

I only wish someone had helped my mother, through reading, to understand her deep feelings of abandonment. Then, she might have lived more easily with her losses and reconciled her sorrowful past with a happier present.


Critically acclaimed Chicago-based writer Fern Schumer Chapman has written several award-winning books. Viking/Penguin released her most recent book, Brothers, Sisters, Strangers: Sibling Estrangement and the Road to Reconciliation, in April 2021. Her memoir, Motherland — a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award, and a BookSense76 pick — is a popular choice for book clubs. Two of her other books, Is It Night or Day? and Like Finding My Twin, are used in middle school classrooms. In 2004, the Illinois Association of Teachers of English (IATE) named Chapman the “Illinois Author of the Year.” Twice, Oprah Winfrey shows have featured her books.Recently, she published two picture books, Happy Harper Thursdays and The Return of Happy Harper Thursdays.